Set in the world of children, drawing parallels between kids and adults. How our social interactions remain similar throughout life
From the weather-beaten shoulder of the causeway, the passersby could look at the old mill buildings that had been retrofitted hiply with new businesses and dynamic offices. As they darted by sipping coffee, they could ponder passively at what was going on inside, the temperature, the construction workers with their rugged dignity and so forth, while the world around them grayed.
Among the newer editions was a large day care center devoted to the working poor. The sign for Alpha-Bits loomed over the back of the building in advertisement and illuminated the plow sand at night and gave the drug addicts a guiding light. It was cleverly adorned with a children's block letter depicting the letters A and B perpendicularly, omitting the C and D. The bricks of the building were the color of coffee and tea.
"Honey, this is where you'll be going after school while daddy and I are working," my mother told me as we exited her red Escort hatchback and I wiped my nose on my Starter jacket. There had been babysitters but not one responsible or sane enough to last more than a couple of weeks. One was a skateboarding kid named Mark who smelled like reefer. Then there was the quasi-schizophrenic Stacy, who threw a cat on my Dad for a laugh and my Dad had gotten his bare back scratched up something fierce.
Stepping out of the car with my backpack I peered up at the building in which I would be herded daily, along with my crusty-nosed, unwiped, whining, crying, vomiting, playing, cracker-eating, disheveled, unkempt, maple-syrup-in-hair-and-old-milk-on-breath classmates in a Ford van. The building represented a corrections facility and I felt a man condemned.
Up to this day my life had had a routine casual luxury which, I felt at the time, could never be pried my from rigid clutches. Staying at home, being fed my favorite sodium-enriched foods, watching cartoon mammals beat the brains out of each other in between advertisements of reform-Jew lawyers pleading to accident victims, promising them money should they pursue justice. (Or was it justice to pursue money?) Pre-school was fun and the day spent there was relatively short. I got to be a little human and forage out into civilization on my own for the first time and would routinely receive a Charleston Chew and a Dr. Pepper or some other combination of sugary delights. Then on home for more Macaroni and cheese and price is right and outside-the-lines coloring. And at dinner I would finish my meats and vegetables and toss the vile plant material of vegetables into the trash. And off to sleep to dream the dreams of a small child.
Then there was kindergarten, and the stakes were raised drastically. The first first day of school. Personality actualizes exponentially from 4 to 5. Kids who just wouldn't share before, were now becoming bullies. On my first day, when I still had red streaks on my cheeks from rubbing salty tears from them, one such bully took a jab at my back. I would soon learn that the reason he punched, not only my back, but many other boys' backs, was that he felt the sound that it made was pleasant, like a burlap sack loosely packed with meat tossed to the bare earth.
“Watch out little wimp,” he said as he struck. He pretended to be in the bully for the glitz and glamor and authority but for him it was all about that little noise. “Bhuphf”
I began to well up with tears again and he forcibly turned me around and gave me a second, even harder, blow to the middle my back next to my spine, for he would not punch bone because it did not create the desired sound effect. I tried to reason with him through intermittent bawling.
“Whu-why, wou-,” taking in a huge breath of air, “would you do that?” I said, the words bursting forth like a frightened cat from a picnic basket.
“Cuz. You're a little whimp. Little whimp. Lil booger!” he replied, and he gave me one final shove as he sauntered down the corridor feeling satisfied for the moment. I walked into a classroom where my academic career would officially commence.
My kindergarten teacher, Ms. Abernathy, did her best to introduce us to crude academics and fill the role of matriarch for us confused, defeated and dour youngsters. We read a story about a fox who wore a tophat and a toad who wore a monocle that drove a roadster down country roads to their friend the mallard's home for tea. At noon some odorous rectangular mats were brought out by Ms. Abernathy, and she had a crate of milks for us. We drank the milks, the world dimmed, and pretty soon we were dozing comfortably. Ms. Abernathy had shut the blinds.
Back at the after-school penitentiary, I was led up the stairs by a lion-faced woman named Brenda who smoked cigarettes in the field trip van and grab kids by their arm and lead them around in a way that bordered on abuse. Brenda was 27 but looked 39. Marbloro Menthol fulls had taken their toll on her. At 3 packs a day, her complexion, her motivation, her sex life, had all but completely vanished. One observing from outside would presume that here was a woman who absolutely loathed her job. But to the contrary. Brenda had come to relish her current occupation. Imposing brutal austerity measures for minor all because of the minor infraction of one , denying access to the bathroom. These are the only activities from which she derived any pleasure. And, like it or not, the children were her only source of social interaction. The rest of her time was spent at home, alone, watching detestable sitcoms and stewing in her own self-pity.
“Alright come on, we're gonna watch a movie,” she said in her nicotine and tar-laced bark, and proceed to inject Fiefel Goes West into a VCR.
“Alright now you kids stay where ya's are and behave!” she said with a fresh smoke in her mouth. I was watching her as she opened the heavy black door that led out to a metal staircase and lit up into the wind.
I turned my concerns back to the mice on-screen, waves battering them in a scene that was rich in primary color, like all great Disney films, when I heard a little creature next to me make a sound.
“What's your name? My name's Kirsten. I like Smurfs,” the creature said again, clearer this time. I noticed it was female with short blonde hair and a pair of eyes so big they seemed to be bursting from their lids. I stared at her for a moment, unsure of what to say.
“I like Smurfs too. And David the Gnome,”
“Yeah,” she said, looking away a bit, seeming as though she may have regretted her decision to speak to me. We both resumed the film. Brenda settled back into the room and reviewed some papers.
There came a moment, when the cartoon swashbuckling and general chaos on-screen had ceased to make room for an onscreen kiss between two mice. When the movie ended and Brenda brought up the lights, Kirsten, quite unexpectedly, grabbed me by the jaw with her little thin-skinned chicken hands and pressed her lips very hard against mine. A very violating, demented and especially young first kiss. Despite the violation, however, I suddenly felt inexplicably belated. Kirsten, on the other hand, pulled away and stuck her tongue out at me and silently put her spread out-hands on either side of her head, looking like a moose with antlers, nana-nana-boo-boo style, and ran away laughing like a maniac. And my experience with females thenceforth has essentially fit that same pattern.
At 5:00 pm the trial mercifully came to an end when my mom came to pick me up in the Escort hatchback. She invariably asked my how my day had been. I had held her up for 15 minutes this morning with my hysterical crying in front of the school's flagpole so she knew that much at leas. I thought about my back bully and lamented.
“I hate school. It's dumb,” I said, pouting and glaring out the window as we exited the lot and merged onto Granite St.. The day had taken on a gloomy exterior while our movie was playing.
“Don't say that. You need school. You didn't have fun in your little kindergarten class?”
“No I didn't. I don't wanna go back tomorrow,” I declared like a brat.
“You don't have to go tomorrow. Just consider yourself lucky that the first day of school fell on a Friday.”
Yes! How could I have been such a fool? The weekend. When my dad would get a couple days' rest to drink beer and curse the Red Sox as they botched late-season games (this was in 1989). The same deal must go for school, and that realization, and the thought of Kirsten, caused a great rush of euphoria and optimism in me that no bully or disgruntled shrew would ever defeat me.
And more plates were scraped, and more squash gourds and green beans got scraped into wastebaskets.